Lifestyle Reader's Edge the April 2024 issue

The Soul of the Garden

A review of Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens
By Scott Naugle Posted on April 1, 2024

Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens by Marc Hamer presents just such a conundrum. Is Spring Rain a memoir, spiritual tract, self-help guide or gardening journal? It was such a gratifying and immersive reading experience that there is no need to box in this lush, beautifully written meditation on the lifesaving power of the natural world.

Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens

By Marc Hamer

Greystone Books


Hamer was born in England and moved to Wales over 30 years ago. After a period of homelessness, he worked for the railroad, returned to college to study art, worked in art galleries, and eventually found his passion and solace as a professional gardener. Hamer’s early years into adulthood were far from easy, but this book illustrates his awareness during these years of nature and the emotionally rehabilitative effects of gardening.

There is so much to unpack intellectually in this small book, which is physically the size of the palm of my hand but is nevertheless expansive in cerebral breadth and mindfulness.

In his youth, Hamer suffers physical and mental abuse at the hands of his father, whom he calls only “Angry Dog.” Yet his rich imaginative life persists.

“Outside, NOW! Growls the dog and pushes the boy into the garden from behind, then a harder push and he falls into the rhubarb…. You are a worthless piece of shit, boy. What are you?… Again the boy doesn’t answer, and once more he is knocked down with a hard push, this time to his stomach, winding him.” At age 16, after his mother’s death, his father forces him from their home. “IT’S YOUR fault she is dead—your fault….You need to leave. I don’t want you here, you are surplus to requirements,” growls Angry Dog. Hamer spent the next three years sleeping in the woods or in boxcars or anywhere he could rest his head.

Hamer’s perceived sin, in his father’s eyes, I think, was his intellectual curiosity and contentment in being alone. He found a dusty encyclopedia in a shed and studied entries on plants and the natural world. He drew. He planted seeds. He made young friends but slowly. “There’s another kind of quiet power, rarer and more dignified, that’s usually unnoticed, hidden in the brutal noise,” Hamer recalls. “It’s quiet and filled with peace and the boy can feel it, knows that it is real, he feels it in his body but does not yet know what it is.” Now in his mid-60s, he returns to the skin and soul of his youth, charting his intellectual and emotional awakening, his budding maturity, so beautifully recalled within a world of pain.

Throughout Spring Rain, Hamer responds to stressful situations in his life not by reacting in the moment with anger or frustration but by observing the beauty or streetscape surrounding him. At one such troublesome point he observes, “A special door opens when I have flowers, which take me, each time I look at them, into a place where I and they are not owner and owned, but a mirror to each other.”

We discover much about Hamer through his interactions with nature, his intense focus in the moment, building upon the smallest details. Simply the act of watching nature—“then the ferns begin to bounce as raindrops hit, and I listen to them strike the big heart-shaped leaves on the lilac tree, splat and splash into the water butt”—prompts broader thoughts on one’s purpose: “This being here right now—this ‘is,’ this very moment—is everything that’s real.”

Hamer says this is the last book in his Gardeners Trilogy. Looking backward from the vantage point of age, Hamer thinks about what he gave up and gained in slowing his mind and pace of life. He is a man of few written words, and I suspect one of few spoken words, so what is written must be succinct while allowing us into his thoughts. As an example: “Lasting happiness is a skill…. To get it, I gave things up; stopped competing against others, accepting nature’s flow, handed myself to simplicity, accepted inevitability, change and meaninglessness, but most of all I had to forgive people.”

Spring Rain is not a gardening book of seed recommendations with advice about fertilizing fluffier pink petunias or bog-planting elephant ears. It is instead about how a contemplative mental state may merge within the physical self in an act of creative solitude, of seeding hope, sourcing growth while silencing the soul. For Hamer, and many of us who enjoy working under the sun, on our knees, pulling weeds and aerating soil with a hand hoe, “It is good to be mindful; gardening creates, builds, and strengthens mindfulness…a garden is a place of worship…. You can tell what people worship by looking at their gardens.” The garden was Hamer’s recovery room.

The best books about gardening are, at the root, about the self, ruminative, quiet, prescient, surrounding the reader with plants, mulch and hope.

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